Friday, June 02, 2006


(From left) Saryn Hooks, Finola Hackett, Katharine Close. Behold the future. Bow down and grovel.

Last night the viewing public was treated to the kind of reality program I can get behind - a live presentation of the finals of the 79th Annual Scripps National Spelling Bee, in which 13 of the best and brightest of North America gathered in Washington D.C. to spell their little hearts out. Now, I can expect some cynics out there to scoff at this event, at the garishness of thrusting young ones into the harsh spotlight of primetime television and ripping the innocence out of a precocious event in the name of ratings. But nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, last night's show was not only a thrilling competition, but a celebration of the coolness of education and intelligence.

ABC, which has had a checkered history in the reality-TV realm (for every "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition," there is an "Are You Hot?" or "The Bachelor: This Time They'll Stay Together - We Promise!") did a splendid job with their presentation, never overselling the deal or going overboard with caustic elements. No kid was forced to eat a cockroach or sit in a confessional box and spill their guts. They were all clean-cut and charming and displayed loads of personality. And they all were very, very smart, spelling words so complicated that Microsoft Word's spell check won't even bother with many of them.

There was drama when Saryn Hooks, a 14-year-old from North Carolina, was eliminated from the competition for misspelling the word "hechescher" and then reinstated a few minutes later when judges determined that they screwed up their spelling of the word. (She eventually finished third.) There was surprise when the presumed favorite, confident 13-year-old Rajiv Tarigopula of St. Louis, was knocked out after flubbing the world "heiligenschein" (a bright light around a shadow of a person's head cause by dew drops - or something like that. God, did they make these words up or what?). And there was white-knuckle suspense as the final two competitors, Katharine Close of New Jersey and Canadian Finola Hackett, went toe-to-toe for several rounds nailing with ease words that God Himself wouldn't know how to spell before Finola finally got tripped up and Katharine ("Kerry" to, well, just about everybody) sealed the deal with the word "ursprache," which means parent language. She responded as any kid would and should - with utter disbelief, even though her confidence had shown through all night long.

I was very happy to see education on display for all of the nation to see. I was stoked that the final three spellers were all girls, 'cause you can never give enough attention to that aspect of the education issue. And I was very pleased for Kerry, who looks like the type of kid who will be able to handle the extra attention - and there will be a lot of it. Already she has done the three network morning shows, and I'm sure Leno and Letterman, among other things, are in the offing. (Kerry wants to be a journalist. We'll see if she sticks to that after dealing with the same questions over and over again.) If native sons Bruce Springsteen and Tony Soprano give her congratulatory phone calls, her year will be complete. Oh, that $42,000 in prize money won't hurt, either.

There always are signs that the bloom could pop off of this rose pretty damn quick. Some bettors actually laid odds on this year's competition. There's talk that the prize package could skyrocket if the finals remain on broadcast primetime, and who knows if that would destroy the camaraderie the spellers obviously build among each other. (Would it be long before some ambitious parent puts a hit out on his kid's main rival, or at least gives him a very sore throat?) But let's not think about that right now. Let's revel in the triumph of what happened yesterday. Can you spell a-w-e-s-o-m-e?

P.S. An interesting sidebar - last year Kerry Close was randomly picked to be the audience speller during a Broadway performance of the Tony-winning musical "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee." Foreshadowing?

Click on the subject title for Newsday's take on the hometown girl done good.

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